Mercury alert: Is canned tuna safe to eat?

How often can kids safely eat canned tuna?

Adults and pregnant women: See below for more details.

both

The tuna sandwich is a lunchbox staple. But several species of tuna, like other large ocean fish, contain higher-than-average amounts of mercury.

This is of particular concern for young children, whose nervous system, brain, heart, kidneys and lungs are all susceptible to the harmful effects of mercury, which is highly toxic.

Where does mercury come from?

Air pollution. Specifically, it rains down on rivers, lakes and oceans after being emitted from power plants and other industrial sources that burn fossil fuels.

How to stop mercury pollution?

We have been pressing for full implementation of new EPA rules, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, to help protect everyone from these toxic chemicals. Families and clean air advocates helped us secure the standards, but industry opponents are fighting these rules in the court system.

How much canned tuna is safe to eat?

Fortunately, parents and kids need not give up tuna altogether.

There are two main kinds of canned tuna: chunk light and solid or chunk white (albacore). Most canned white tuna is albacore. Its mercury levels are almost three times higher than the smaller skipjack, used in most canned light tuna.

These recommendations are based on EPA guidance and estimates of mercury in the most popular canned tunas:

  • Canned white, or albacore (0.32 parts per million of mercury). Children under six can eat up to one 3-ounce portion a month; children from 6–12, two 4.5-ounce portions a month. Adults, including pregnant women, can safely eat it up to three times a month (women, 6-ounce portions; men, 8-ounce portions).
  • Canned light — the safer choice (0.12 parts per million of mercury). Children under six can eat up to three 3-ounce portions per month. Older children and adults can safely eat it once a week. But look out for “gourmet” or “tonno” labels. They are made with bigger yellowfin tuna and can contain mercury levels comparable to canned white.
  • A better alternative is canned salmon (mostly sockeye or pink from Alaska), which is low in contaminants and high in heart-healthy omega-3s. It's also sustainably caught in Alaska and similarly priced, making it a great choice all around.

Keep an eye on school lunches 

If your child eats tuna in school lunches, it's best to find out what types are being offered and how often.

A study by the Mercury Policy Project found a wide range of mercury levels in both light and white tuna from government sponsored school lunch programs. Some of the canned albacore/white tuna tested had mercury levels almost four times the average level reported by FDA.

For health warnings about other fish, see our Seafood Selector.

Other risks to children: Couches?

Did you know your couch may contain cancer-causing chemicals in the form of toxic flame retardants?

Though their benefits are questionable these toxic chemicals are pervasive. Parents and organizations like EDF are gathering support for reform of an outdated law that allows thousands of toxic and untested chemicals into everyday household products.

“By paying attention, parents can safely include tuna sandwiches in their kids’ lunch boxes, in moderation.

Timothy Fitzgerald EDF Scientist